“The point about Does My Society Look BigIn This? is it is about what’s happening in Bristol now” – Bristol Old Vic's Artistic Director Tom Morris, promoting his theatre’s current work in the main house.
Morris has joined forces with writer Stephen Brown and the cast of Wild Oats to deliver a piece of satirical polemic that claims to sift through the biggest news stories and unearths the truth behind the headlines.
As you’d expect, a heavily improvised and recently written play about current local news events is going to be a little disjointed. But having a cast who have already been working on a sold-out production certainly helps. I was fortunate to sit beside Tom Morris and it was interesting to see which bits made him laugh out loud and which bits prompted him to jot down notes… it would be fascinating to hear his post-play analysis with the crew and – judging from his reaction and that of the packed audience – I can only assume it was positive.
Loosely strung around the theme of a self-funded student who’s just started university in Bristol where he’s studying contemporary dance, Does My Society…? aims to showcase the diverse population of Bristol: one that is creative, political, self-serving and more. Through different characters we encounter the Anti Cuts campaign, the Bristol Pound, local radio, academic life and more, including – briefly – the memories of an older character who doesn’t recognise the Bristol he lives in now from the Bristol he worked in as a factory hand.
I enjoyed the show enormously but I have one gripe. Where were the women of Bristol, and where were the women in the cast? There were three women in the cast, and significantly more men – although I realise this is the same cast as Wild Oats, which influences the imbalance. However, at least 50% of Bristolians are women and Bristol is blessed with strong, important and influential women, many of whom are heavily involved with today’s news stories in our city.
But I saw little of the stories affecting women in Bristol right now: the food banks that many single mothers are turning to in desperation thanks to the cuts, the absence of women in the mayoral election, the scarcity of women in the local council, the enormous problem of FGM (female genital mutilation) in Bristol’s huge Somali community, and on and on.
Where were the Bristolian women in Does My Society…? Because all I saw was a female student character, a female artist character, and one or two other minor stereotypes. But there were no real women, telling the stories that are vital, current and relevant to those in our city right now, regardless of gender. And for that reason, as a Bristolian woman, I didn’t recognise the city I live in portrayed on the stage.
But I did recognise the Bristol portrayed in the section where it was decided to find a Bristol Old Vic Mayor For The Evening. This person would be given £200 to use as they saw fit, and the audience would vote for the candidate they wanted to win. A very interesting idea.
Reflecting Bristol’s real mayoral campaign (which has just one woman candidate and 11 men), there were initially four candidates, all of whom were men. Shouts from a group in the audience for a woman were initially overlooked by the organiser but listened to after they were repeated, and a woman was sought to join the five men on stage. The same group appealed for another woman, and one of the men stepped down to make space for a second woman. Meaning we had six candidates, two female and four male. (If only one or two of the real mayoral candidates would step down!)
Before the interval, each candidate stated how they would spend the £200. Some of the pledges were baffling in their vulgarity – one said they’d put it behind the bar, another wanted to paint roads the colours they are on the map, and two said they’d give it to students. Only one person said they would donate it to a charity – the Three Ways School in Bath.
However, the interval was a space where we were invited to quiz the candidates… and I bumped into one, Laura, in the toilets. Laura (who is a director of the Old Vic) had initially pledged to use the £200 towards the theatre’s front of house refurbishment. But I asked if she’d consider donating it to One25 instead, and explained that a donation of £200 to them would mean that eight vulnerable women in hospital – women who have nothing – would receive vital packs of clothes and toiletries, and know that someone cared about their wellbeing and valued them as a person. While £200 of decorating equipment was barely enough to buy a few tins of paint. I was touched and impressed when, after the interval, Laura announced on stage that she had decided that should she win she would donate £100 to One25 and the other £100 to Bristol Ferment.
Needless to say, when the audiences’ votes were counted, the school in Bath scooped the most votes, with exited sex workers coming in third place. But still, the fact that Laura changed her mind and spoke about One25 on stage in front of a packed theatre is wonderful. And even though they didn’t receive the £200, I’ll be donating what my complimentary theatre ticket would have cost to One25.
Another Bristol story that deserved mention was the Tesco riot in Stokes Croft last April. Of course, this riot wasn’t really about Tesco, it was about the fact that the decision-makers in Bristol had again not listened to the citizens of Bristol. This section was nicely melded with video footage from the riots, and reenacted quotes from a policeman, artist and activist who lived in Stokes Croft.
And you can’t mention Stokes Croft without referring to the graffiti and murals, which a street drinker character told the Does My Society…? audience he loved. Again, a topical reference as this weekend, to mark Anti Slavery Day which will be on 18 October (another local story the play could have made much of), the walls of Jamaica Street – behind two of the area’s ‘massage parlours’ – are to be decorated in anti-sex trafficking graffiti. The hope is to influence the decision of at least one man who is thinking of using the services of the women working in those brothels, some of whom will have been trafficked.
As I left the theatre, I overheard a young woman say in surprise: ‘I was, like, literally engaged the whole way through. I didn’t, like, get bored once.” And I would say to the cast and crew of Does My Society Look Big In This? that this is clearly some endorsement from this young lady. But even the more seasoned theatre-goers seemed to be lapping up the messages, locality and wit of the performance. Despite my gripes about the lack of women in the Bristolian society presented here, I enjoyed the show very much and suggest you do your best to catch one of the few performances.
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